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The greatest weapon in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” Steven Biko

It’s been suggested that psychological pain can equal (and in some cause surpass) physical suffering – in the case of PTSD, psychological injury can last three to five years, and in some cases become a permanent part of the recipient’s psyche. 

Our mind is susceptible to outside influence. Mental torture is a means by which those with power attempt to subjugate, weaken, and to demoralize the target through a dissolution of self. Peck describes individuals who deliberately toy with others as evil – their willingness and desire to manipulate is without boundaries. “Evil is a lack of respect for others and the acting out of that disrespect. The more blatant and extreme the lack of respect, the greater the evil” (Carr-Ruffino, 2002). Mental torture at work (from peers and from those hierarchically superior) can take the following forms:

  1. Purposeful annoyance: being difficult is a way to exercise negative influence. At work this can manifest in the “once over” each time an individual sees you, despite the fact that he/she knows ogling causes you discomfort. Difficulty is also evidenced in (1) giving you your least preferred assignment; (2) needlessly arguing, or oppositional behavior; and (3) going overboard on display of bad habits. The bottom line is that your nemesis proceeds forth in a deliberate effort to get under your skin.  A lack of empathy (and an attitude which is oblivious to the feelings of others) are requisite elements of egocentrism. Torturers know which buttons to push and do the opposite of what you desire. It’s not that they don’t know they’re violating your boundaries, it’s that they don’t care.
  2. Guilt: an abuser rubs your nose in the stench of your perceived transgression (despite an apology on your part). Calling you on the carpet and embarrassment through belittlement squelch your self-confidence, initiate self-doubt, and in general ruin your day. Holding grudges, never forgiving, and never forgetting are recipes for relationship disaster.
  3. Threats: Although these can take the form of physical harm, the mental torturer takes a more insidious route to dismantling your defenses. They may drop hints about transferring your position, moving you to another location, firing you, or abandoning you for help. The objective is to leave you on edge, uneasy and apprehensive, hoping that this person’s next move is to your advantage. This technique works particularly well if it’s employed by the unstable and disruptive, who don’t mind severing ties to score a mental coup.
  4. Refusing to discuss issues: Walking away, slamming doors, and being the bully wins you the bout (but does little for the esteem of the wounded party). Not returning correspondence is one-upmanship of the small, a form of non-communication that stops at their door. Issues dropped but unresolved breed resentment on the part of the vanquished party, whose choice is the bully’s way or the highway. Dialogue is antithetical to torturters’ daily routine. 
  5. Ostracism: the cabal joins rank and circles the wagons in response to what they perceive as uppitiness on your part. Cortina points out this phenomenon is more likely for marginalized groups. In other words, it’s a power play of the dominant coalition. The persecuted learn quickly to tow the line and to keep their mouths shut when peers are annihilated.
  6. Incessant putdowns: the torturer’s beady mind is always on the lookout for things to censure. No matter the effort, abusers refuse to praise even the most arduous accomplishment. A narcissist wants to shine the spotlight on him or herself. If he’s causing problems, then all eyes are upon him (and unfocused on the target’s achievements).
    Active put downs then serve a dual purpose – to circumvent compliments, and to make the torturer the center. The best you can hope to obtain from these individuals is non-acknowledgement (or a backhanded compliment). It’s all about them, 24/7. If the insults occur in someone’s office, Scarry suggests that the very room itself can be transformed into elements of torture. Merely being in that person’s space is enough to evoke feelings of fear, panic, helplessness, and dread.    


  7. Making you beg. Torturers delight in dangling something in front of you (then removing it). They feel powerful when they control the purse strings or the access to things desired. Famous phrases are “I’ll let you know,” or “We’ll see about that.” Evasiveness when you broach your request is a dead giveaway that you’re being played. Narcissists are only satisfied when they see you grovel.
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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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